"Stylized Portrait Illustration" for MacUser Magazine UK.
I ♥ Design
I'm thankful for what I get to do for a living. I really enjoy it, and I have a lot of fun creating and working with my clients and other design firms. I have nothing to complain about in terms of my day to day job, I love.
That said, I've always been one to speak my mind be it good or bad and I'd like to think I'm fair more times than not. Over the last several months I've been thinking through a lot of issues related to the state of our industry in respect to both design and illustration and the end result is this post.
It's a good mix of hard truth, seasoned with just enough sarcasm to hopefully make it fun to read while staying informative. But I'm sure some with disagree with my assessment and that's what comments are for.
I a designer of the United States, in order to form a more perfect creative process, establish drawing, insure design tranquility, provide excellent art, promote conceptual welfare, and secure the blessings of creative liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this blog post for the designers of the United States of America.
Design Needs Drawing
MacUser Magazine UK approached me about writing a tutorial for their publication that utilized the same creative methods I used to create my Billy Mays artwork. I was excited to do this because I'm a diehard MAC user myself and this type of project is just fun to work on so I said "Sure."
Before I got started the editor asked "Is there a way to replace the drawing part of the tutorial with some form of computer method instead?" He suggested the possibility of auto-tracing part of the photo. And there's the rub.
A seemingly nonchalant decision to purposely divorce drawing from the design process.
"Sure, no problem I'll remove drawing from my process. And what the hell, while I'm at it I'll remove breathing from my living process too! Because after all that makes about as much sense."
The dumbing down of creativity is a serious pet peeve for me. Those who want to bake it down so it's not too demanding of the individual and caters to the lowest common creative denominator are just facilitating pablum sucking design noobs who think the computer is the wellspring of their creativity.
"You can lead a designer to a computer, but you can't make them draw."
The Dynamic Duo!
Ebony and Ivory, Analog and Digital
The fundamental problem with so many tutorials (creative processes) online today is they are merely geared for what I would call a "Tooler." Someone who doesn't necessarily want to improve their drawing skills, but thinks if they learn the latest software version, or some new pull-down menu effect, or run a filter in a certain way, or mimic some other type of convoluted Fibernachesque computer process they'll be able to skirt having to actually draw something.
Maybe it's just fear of failure? I'm sure that is part of it to some degree but any creative process that avoids risk is at best a flawed one. Approaching a creative solution from the mindset of "Playing it Safe" is just nothing more than choosing mere expediency. Too many designers look for the easy way out when it comes to a creative process and that is problematic to their creative growth. Instead of bolstering a core skill like drawing they pursue a path of least creative resistance and the end result is a Tooler.
I told the editor "Sorry but my process is both analog and digital. One is not independent of the other. I think that is a good thing to show." Nothing I do is fully digital, nor is it fully analog, I'm constantly going back and forth through out the creative process.
The editor eventually agreed to let me keep it the way I wanted (I wouldn't have done it otherwise) and I proceeded. Compared to my tutorials at IllustrationClass.com this one was going to be an abridged version that had to fit on a two page spread in the magazine.
Creativity via tools equals "iSuck."
The Dispensation of Toolers
Early in my career (pre-computer) people would ask me what I did for a living and I'd say "I'm a graphic designer." and the usual response was something like "You get paid to draw? I can't draw a stick figure...." and they'd proceed to admire, recognize and clearly associate my core skill and craft with what I did for a living.
But now (post-computer) when I tell people what I do the normal response tends to be something like this "That's cool. I have a computer too. I printed some ink jet business cards for..." and they proceed to associate what they do on a hack PC in their spare time using Microsoft Paint, prefab templates, Comic Sans font, and clip-art with what I do as a professional for a living. Gone is the appreciation or even recognition of a skill or craft I possess to do my job. For the most part they don't view themselves as lacking any core ability because the computer in their mind has replaced the skill and craft they once associated with my ability.
Our industry is now inundated with Toolers, who reinforce this poor public perception for what we do. They don't take skill and craft seriously and in essence one could argue they are glorified amateurs who just know more about the software than the general public. Mom and Pop see what they produce and say to themselves "Hey, I can do that too." And thus the Tooler dispensation was born.
Compound this new dispensation with the fact so many designers whore themselves via sites like www.Crowdspring.com, and art schools are flooding the landscape with software savvy, marketing clueless, concept weak, drawing inept students at the tune of about 16,000 every six months (Stats from 2001) and you see the not so pretty big picture that is the future of the design industry.
As for me and my creative convictions I refuse to celebrate mediocrity. But I digress.
How to Recognize a Zombie Designer
When ever I look at design there are "5" specific attributes I look for when I critique it.
1. Is there a core concept?
Great designers should be great thinkers.
2. Is the style appropriate?
It's commercial art, not fine art.
3. Is the art well executed and precise?
Quality craftsmanship is a must.
4. Is it unique?
Don't be a drop in the sea of marginal prefab design.
5. Is it inspiring?
Does it contain a clever visual twist or metaphor?
How these attributes break down for me.
Contains all five attributes but is very rare.
Must contain 1, 2 and 3. Most often 4 too.
Only contains two attributes, fails the rest.
Most manage to avoid all five attributes.
I realize not all clients need high-concept solutions so that much isn't ironclad in my critique, it needs to be balanced appropriately for each client and I go over all of that here.
A Tooler however dwells in the realm of "Marginally Bad" and only enters "Good" by accident or by deriving or copying another persons work. Because of this modus operandi and the current trend with prefab design methods, our industry has legions of zombie designers that choose to feed off the corpse of incurious creativity.
Know your Tooler: Computer, check. Turtleneck, check. Thick framed glasses, check. Flawed creative process, check.
The Creative Industrial Complex
Toolers are more than willing to do work for sweat shop pay grade sites like Crowdspring.com, iStockPhoto.com or logoworks.com? Their actions facilitate a growing problem being pimped by multi-national corporations like Getty and HP, who wish to turn the design industry into a mere fast-food commodity revenue stream, or as I like to call it "The Creative Industrial Complex." Makes me wonder if HP's new logo was done by their own logoworks.com for a mere $299, or if a big agency did it for a lot more? Either way it's still a piece of crap.
Mark my words, it's just a matter of time before you see a "LogoMaker" or "InstaLogo" kiosk in Office Depot stores that allows Joe Consumer to design their own logo or business cards etc. Think about it, they have the computer end covered being HP and the design side would be facilitated by the Toolers. So this business model is possible because of designers willing to create the low grade content this type of system depends and thrives on.
And to further complicate the matter and confuse the general publics perception of what we do you have so-called industry leaders like Paula Scher creating prefab design templates for the owners of Logoworks.com.
Which brings up the obvious question "Would Paula design a logo for $299?"
Toolers are to these sites, what a moth is to a bug zapper. But to see talented designers cater to this problematic formula albeit sincere, are sincerely wrong.
Fast Food Design.
Big agencies like Pentagram, Landor, Wieden Kennedy, Leo Burnett and others for the most part don't care about these issues, they think it's below them. They're too busy working for million dollar multi-national clients like HP. But the vast majority of the design being done in our industry isn't by big agencies for multi-national corporations, it's being done by boutique firms and designers like you and me creating for small business owners.
So Toolers whoring their design through sites like Crowdspring.com, iStockPhoto.com and Logoworks.com effects everyone including the big agencies whether they want to admit it or not.
Most of the major design publications have avoided any in depth and honest debate on this topic. Sure there have been a few sidebar articles but never once has any publication done a full-blown expose on this topic. And no surprise, just look at thier advertising and you'll see why. It caters to Toolers. At least the AIGA has attempted to address it in a general sense but they never bother to get too specific and name names, that is what blogging is for I guess?
The fast food design generation is here. So, would you like fries with that design? How about super-sizing your logo perhaps?
Toolers are creative comrades.
As I thought about what the editor had asked me to do, I started to think to myself "This isn't like you're drawing from thin air? You're just drawing from reference, so why try to short cut it by auto-tracing? It'll just look like crap and you'll never get it to be as well thought out or precise as you do from drawing it. Besides what they liked wasn't created by avoiding drawing."
It's like someone enjoying a wonderful meal at a nice restaurant, appreciating the eloquent cuisine of a gifted chef and asking for the recipe. The chef writes it down and they look at it and ask him to replace ingredients because it'll be too hard for them to cook. Of course this is an absurd request and if granted it certainly won't taste like what they enjoyed to begin with. It's not just the change in ingredients, it's also the lack of skill and craft involved in cooking those ingredients. (All analogies fail at some point, but you get my drift)
Creativity is all about exploring. If you don't fail, that means you're not trying hard enough. Some however seem to think a process shouldn't involve any risk? When sharing a process like my tutorial there is a mindset that thinks it should enable everyone to do it via some method that doesn't require any learned skill, just the knowledge of what to click next. I'd call that creative communism, red art if you will.
"If you view my tutorial and you determine that you can't do the drawing part too well, than the tutorial has taught you something. You need to improve on your drawing skills. That is what growing as a designer is all about."
Download "Stylized Portrait Illustration" PDF below.
Anyone Can Improve Their Drawing
I think drawing is very important as a designer. Whether or not you ever want to be a full-blown illustrator or not isn't the point. Improving your drawing skills will make you a better designer period the end. You'll be able to take the intangible idea in your head and flesh it out on paper, it's that simple.
In the following video Milton Glaser discusses the importance of drawing.
When I spoke at the HOW Design Conference in Boston (I've updated my presentation since HOW) I made the following statement concerning the creative process:
"Our industry may be digitally driven but ideas are still best developed in analog form."
That'll never change no matter how advanced our technology gets. So step away from your computer, grab a pencil (It's that yellow thing not tethered to a keyboard), start drawing, stop whining, take some creative risks and see where it leads you.
In other words "Don't be a Tooler!"
Download Tutorial PDF
"Stylized Portrait Illustration" PDF Tutorial
IllustrationClass.com Tutorial Post
PS: If you'd like me to present my step by step creative process presentation called "Illustrative Design" at your design event, AIGA group, AdFed group, Design School or program just contact me and we'll talk. (See top right side bar)